In early November, as American B-52s pummeled Taliban positions, a team of United Nations scientists surveyed the wreckage of the world's last major bombing campaign, the 1999 siege of Kosovo. Since the seventy-eight-day NATO bombardment, researchers with the UN Environment Program have scoured the fractured Balkan landscape, checking shell fragments for radioactivity, sampling well water and testing the soil of bomb-pocked corn fields.
The results of these studies are grim. The battle created severe "environmental hotspots" that pose "acute health risks" to the residents of four major cities, reports UN team leader Pasi Rinne. In the eyes of Rinne and his fellow researchers, a "new type of complex humanitarian emergency" is unfolding in post-war Kosovo. A key concern for the UN is the use of depleted uranium (DU) shells, 30,000 of which were fired during the battle for Kosovo. The UN fears that DU rounds, which unleash clouds of toxic, mildly radioactive uranium particles–and have been dubbed "the Agent Orange of this era" by greens–may be contaminating drinking water in the region.
Just as the ecological damage done to Kosovo has been largely ignored by the American media, few have considered the long-term environmental consequences of the conflict in Afghanistan. Military analysts expect the Pentagon to employ DU in the Afghan theater, but in lesser amounts than in previous wars. "You won't see that much depleted uranium used because there just aren't the targets," says Philip Coyle, a senior adviser at Washington, DC's Center for Defense Information.
But that doesn't mean this war is an eco-friendly affair.
Just ask Charles Cutshaw, a former Army intelligence officer and Vietnam vet. "A lot of the chemicals in these weapons are toxic," explains Cutshaw, who now works as a consultant for Jane's Defence Weekly. "I've seen battlefields and they are very dirty places." Even purely conventional munitions, good-old fashioned bombs and missiles, are packed with toxins that will be cast to the wind on detonation. The metal components include heavy metals like lead, a neurotoxin, and cadmium, which causes lung disease and organ damage. Then you have the explosive charges, compounds like cyclonite, a probable carcinogen used in a wide range of ordnance. And don't forget perchlorates, a family of thyroid-damaging chemicals used in rocket propellant.
The most significant threat, however, is probably posed by the targets hit by these weapons. In Yugoslavia, NATO bombs obliterated dozens of industrial facilities–oil refineries, electrical transformers, chemical plants, a car factory–located along the Danube river and its tributaries. The strikes sent up plumes of noxious smoke and spilled hundreds of tons of hazardous chemicals into waterways. Here, culled from a 1999 report by Pristina's Regional Environmental Center, is a brief index of the poisons dumped into the Danube: several hundred tons of oil, 1,000 tons of ammonia, 330 tons of caustic hydrochloric acid and 1,400 tons of ethylene-dichloride, a chemical that causes cancer in lab rats. Unsurprisingly, the result of all this was catastrophic. Dead fish were strewn along the banks of the river for miles. Scientists think the water contamination reaches all the way to the Black Sea.
The city of Pancevo, ten miles outside Belgrade, suffered a Bhopal-type disaster when NATO planes incinerated a major petrochemical complex. The complex, which included a fertilizer factory, an oil refinery and a chemical plant, burned for five days, as 80,000 tons of oil and 460 tons of dioxin-laden liquid plastic went up in smoke. Rain the color of coal fell on the town of 80,000 people. The air was filled with an array of lethal chemicals, one of which, a liver poison, clocked in at 10,000 times above safe levels. The horror continues. According to a grisly dispatch from Pancevo that ran in the British Guardian this May, eating root vegetables is now banned because of soil contamination, dogs are coming down with a rare bone cancer, young people are reporting heart problems and about 100 of the emergency workers who rushed to the fire are ailing from permanent, disabling lung damage.
Wracked by twenty years of conflict, Afghanistan doesn't have the modern infrastructure of pre-war Yugoslavia–but the United States is going after the the country's remaining industrial targets. In early November the BBC reported that American bombs knocked out one of Afghanistan's biggest power plants, and in press briefings the Pentagon has said it is aiming for Taliban oil reserves and fuel depots.
"The cleanup problems will be extreme," says Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, a San Francisco-based group focused on the military-environment nexus. "Afghanistan as a country has no capacity to deal with the environmental impacts of this campaign, and as a result, people who aren't yet born will be paying the price. This war will create second- and third-generation victims."